By Rob Dickens. (All photos by Jim Jacob).
MountainGrass Festival 2016
Harrietville, Victoria. November 13-15, 2016
It’s a small town this time of year, even when there is a festival on. It still feels intimate and warm.
Harrietville is located on the Great Alpine Road in the shadow of Mount Feathertop and is the gateway to the bustling-in-winter Mount Hotham. The town was founded as a gold mining settlement during the Victorian Gold Rush and its post office opened in 1865. Harrietville and the surrounding area today has a permanent population of only 400 and during summer it sure feels that way. The town’s post office has been closed a while and, while there are two hotels book-ending the ribbon settlement, there is not even a general store. If you want anything, even many essentials, you need to go to Bright twenty kilometres afar. *
While MountainGrass is only in its fifth year in this guise, there has been an annual bluegrass and old-time music event in the town for more than twenty years. MountainGrass is organised by the Australasian Bluegrass and Old Time Music Association (ABOTMA) and the 2016 version is a three-day festival, slightly longer and larger than last year and the line-up continues to include some overseas headliners which add some grunt and prestige to the event. The crowds this year seem bigger than twelve months ago, but it does not feel crowded. The venues vary from the main marquee tent which looks like it seats up to 500 punters, to a pair of small community halls, the two pubs, a modest walk-up stage and parts of the Feathertop Chalet which house the music workshops. Any short walk between venues will result in passing and saying g’day to only a handful of people.
Of course, there is the informal jamming which is one of my favourite features of the event. A good proportion of the attendees are toting their instruments around, searching for partners for an impromptu musical collaboration. The main registration area in the Chalet provides a constant stream of surprisingly good informal music of homages to The Carter Family, Hank Williams and Bill Monroe with serious respect and agility. There are not many places where there is no jamming – a spare seat, a piece of decking and a blade of grass are all it takes. There is music in the air alright, a MountainGrass badge of honour.
The line-up in 2016 was assembled with deftness, a mix of overseas names, Australian staples and local up-and-comers. The level of artist applications to play here was healthy (another sign of the growing success of the event). Members of Australia’s darling bluegrass band The Davidson Brothers were here, but not on the bill (to this writer’s disappointment), graciously making way for others to showcase their wares.
The program included headliners such maestro mandolinist Mike Compton, Nashville A-graders Trey Hensley and Rob Ickes, Arizona’s The Sonoran Dogs and The Haywood Billygoats from the hills of North Carolina. Other performers were Pete Denahy, The Stetson Family, Appalachian Heaven Stringband, Nine Mile Creek, Pipi Pickers, Astro Cobalt, Bluegrass Parkway, The Cherry Pickers, The Company, Coolgrass, Freya Josephine Hollick, Kimberley Wheeler, Strzelecki Stringbusters, Sunny and the Dark Corners, Wayward Angels, Hamilton County Bluegrass Band, Oh Willy Dear, The Kissin’ Cousins, John Boothroyd, Andrew Clermont & Rachael Johnston.
I decided to spend the evening in the main marquee. Much of Pete Denahy’s music deals with the history of “the cbd of Yackandandah” and its surrounds where he lives. His set was a nice mix of serious and less-so material, as he is a comedian as well as a musician. The title song from his latest CD, Singin’ Shoes was on display, as were other new songs ‘Oh My Lord’ and ‘Paper Ribbon’. There was an abundance of good-natured humour and colourful songs as well, including ‘The Target Song’ which captures the dilemmas for men of going shopping with their partners. Denahy was joined on stage by Aaron McLean on bass and Montz Matsumoto on banjo.
Mandolin Magazine says Mike Compton is “a certified mandolin icon.” He has been awarded Player of the Year by the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) and plays guitar and mandolin on the now-iconic O Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack. He is highly sought after as a solo artist, studio musician, band member and instructor at the annual Monroe Mandolin Camp that he co-founded. Tonight he was a one-man-and-his-mandolin act which takes a superb level of musicianship. His set included rags, blues, the original 1930’s take on ‘Sitting On Top Of The World’ (“the way it should be played”), Bill Monroe’s ‘Evening Prayer Blues’ and the lovable ‘Bring Your Clothes Back Home’. A set for the music traditionalists.
Rob Ickes and Trey Hensley provided the highlight of the night. Ickes is one of the best dobro players on the planet. The IBMA has awarded him Dobro Player of the Year an astonishing fifteen times – he is, in fact, the most IBMA-awarded musician in its history. Ickes was a key member of Blue Highway for many years and has played with Merle Haggard, Dolly Parton, Earl Scruggs, Don Henley, Alison Krauss and Willie Nelson.
Trey Hensley is close to the roots of country music. After picking up a guitar at the age of ten, he performed on the Grand Ole Opry when he was eleven and, as well as being a mighty talented guitarist, he has a fine country crooning voice. Through the years, he has performed with Marty Stuart, Earl Scruggs, Johnny and June Carter Cash, Charlie Daniels, The Oak Ridge Boys and Ricky Skaggs.
In 2013, they made the canny decision to work together, spawning two successful collaborations Before the Sun Goes Down (2015) and Country Blues (2016), both well-received. To see them together again in this setting was something special (I caught their show in Bristol Virginia a few weeks back). Their set list was broad – Billy Joe Shaver’s ‘Georgia on a Fast Train’, Doc Watson’s ‘I Don’t Love Nobody’ and The Louvin Brothers’ gospel song ‘He Can Be Found’. We were also treated to the moonshine tale ‘Lightning’, ‘More Than Roses’ (which suits Hensley’s plaintive vocals brilliantly) and the pair’s cover of Stevie Ray Vaughn‘s ‘Pride and Joy’ was inventive and scintillating. This unique collaborative effort between two uniquely gifted musicians is a revelation in this their first visit to Australia.
The Appalachian Heaven Stringband is well known for its driving arrangements of songs from the Blue Ridge Mountains. The band is the precursor of bluegrass, featuring guitar (Graeme Fletcher) fiddle (Sally Taylor), banjo (Ian Alexander) and bass (Kimberley Wheeler). Their music is authentic and is saturated in tight playing and excellent vocal harmonies. The delightful set in the Community Hall included the classic Robbie Robertson song ‘Evangeline’, the traditional tune ‘Johnny Don’t Come Home Drunk’, two songs from The Red Hots – ‘Bob’s Farewell’ and ‘Elzic’s Farewell’, and Doc Watson’s ‘Train That Carried My Girl From Town”. ‘Chocolate Jesus’ (by Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan) provided a nice counterpoint.
Back to the main marquee for some of the set of South Australia’s The Cherry Pickers who played some covers from a very wide range of sources (The Black Sorrows, Old Crow Medicine Show, Bill Monroe, The Stanley Brothers and The Angels (!!), all given a light bluegrass treatment. The band’s latest offering is the album Hand Picked.
The Stetson Family followed on the main stage and have been flying high with their excellent last release True North (2015) which broke out onto the US Americana charts. Since that album, the band was rocked by the passing of its mandolin player, Andy Carswell. Helping out the core band members today – leader and main vocalist (Nadine Budge), guitarist (John Bartholomeusz) and Colin Swan on banjo (regular bass man Luke Richardson was on other duties) – were violinist Greg Field and bass player Kimberley Wheeler. A great set and music from a band I greatly admire – spirited, driving folk, evocative stories of murder, mayhem and the heart, combined with lush harmonies. Songs from the last album were featured including ‘Top of The Mountain’, ‘Run Daddy Run’, ‘Man and a Pretty Gal’, a beautiful rendition of ‘Every Second Beat Of My Heart’, Bob Dylan’s ‘Billy’ and ‘How Mountain Girls Can Love’. From the LP O Winding River, we had the title track and ‘Hey Sister Mary’. A great set which livened up proceedings considerably.
Featuring master fiddler Bob Herring, the Haywood Billy Goats are a driving old-time string band out of the Round Peak and Piedmont regions of North Carolina. A four-piece outfit, the members play a variety of instruments as they share a single microphone out front (a common feature of most acts on formal display at the festival). Their infectious propelling groove, knowledge and respect of the traditions close to their home are captivating and they present excellent dancing music. They have earned awards back home in a number of reputable string band contests as well as a first place finish at the 2015 Australian National Bluegrass Mandolin Championships.
Members of the Billy Goats have also performed with Sierra Hull, Ricky Skaggs, Jim Lauderdale, Chris Henry and the Hardcore Grass, and Mandolin Orange. When they convene into a dual fiddle arrangement, it is something to behold and the Community Hall was pumping.
It was only a short walk down the main street to the Mountain View Retreat Hall to catch some of the set of Wayward Angels, an all-female bluegrass outfit which formed in 2013. Lead vocal responsibilities were shared throughout the set between members Kay Armstrong on banjo, Jody Bell on mandolin, Brenda “Lee” Kelly on guitar and Anne-Marie Lawton on double bass. There were equal elements of bluegrass, old-time music, alt-country covers and originals, dressed with sweet harmonies.
Retracing my steps to the other hall venue, I found Kimberley Wheeler in solo mode, accompanied by John Gray on banjo (a beautifully light touch player, formerly from Uncle Bill) and Quentin Fraser (upright bass). Now Kimberley has an impressive pedigree – part of Uncle Bill as well, Little Rabbit, Le Blanc Cajun Band and the aforementioned Appalachian Heaven Stringband. Her own songs on last year’s Little Rabbit release (Watching over Joan) were striking in their song construction, dark and sometimes quirky context, as well as her distinctive vocals.
Today’s performance was about her eighth for the festival and she was terrific – the material included her excellent Little Rabbit originals – the politically sharp ‘Widows On The Hill’ and the infectious ‘Overdrive’. There were also some excellent covers including Johnny Mercer’s ‘I’m an Old Cow Hand (From the Rio Grande)’which suited Wheeler’s voice to a tee and Jimmy Martin’s ‘Hit Parade of Love’. I detected that her singing has gone to a new level and I eagerly await her solo project, expected sometime next year. Wheeler has also just taken over as President of ABOTMA.
Back to the Mountain Retreat Hall again – quite a bit of back-and-forth today, I am starting to sympathise with table tennis balls at this point. Formed in 2011, The Sonoran Dogs hail from the Tucson/Phoenix region of Arizona and have made a significant impact on the bluegrass scene. The band is comprised of seasoned veterans – Peter McLaughlin (guitar/vocals), Mark Miracle (mandolin and vocals) and Tyler James (mandolin and vocals). The band’s regular bass player was replaced by a local, Bruce Packard for the Australian tour.
The Sonoran Dogs (not ‘Snoring Dogs’ as affirmed by the band!) play a collection of traditional bluegrass standards, new-grass, Americana, folk, Celtic and original compositions. The temperature in the Hall on this warm day was a little oppressive for some and there were plenty of happy punters sitting outside and being able to hear the performance clearly via the external speaker. The band’s prowess was evident, brilliant integrated playing and dexterity. For mine, it rated as one of the very best shows of the weekend and it certainly elicited the most boisterous and passionate crowd response of the festival. A real hit.
By this time it was Sunday evening and a meal outside on a beautiful night with local Melbourne songstress Suzette Herft was a delightful way to finish up the day.
There were also a series of workshops on the Saturday and Sunday mornings:
Old-time mandolin (Andrew Small), intermediate bluegrass banjo (John Taylor), bluegrass guitar (Tony O’Rourke), Earl Scruggs-style bluegrass banjo (Peter Scholtz), bluegrass bass (Maria Duff), bluegrass guitar (Trey Hensley), country blues mandolin (Mike Compton), old-time fiddle (Sally Taylor), bluegrass fiddle (Donal Taylor). Appalachian claw hammer banjo (Ian Alexander), flatfooting (Belinda Gibson) bluegrass Slow Jam (Strzelecki Stringbusters), songs of The Carter Family (John Boothroyd & Rob Lewis) and a Gospel concert.
I managed to get to three other workshop sessions. Rob Ickes handled multiple questions on a wide range of topics dobro related – pick-ups, instrument types, stage techniques, tone bar skills, even dealing with flights and his preferred guitar case for on the road. Yours truly has a dobro which is not resonating as well or as often as it should be and I found this session to be engrossing. Nadine Budge and the rest of The Stetson Family did a terrific job during a harmony workshop, building up a sizeable group into a three-part harmony covering one of the band’s own songs. The end result was surprisingly good. The third educational activity was a slow jam conducted by Jenine Arbarbanel and the rest of The Pipi Pickers.
This educational aspect and passing on the traditions, culture and technique of bluegrass and old-time music is yet another highly attractive aspect of MountainGrass.
And so it ended. Another terrific event which is solidifying its place as one of the most important roots and traditional music events in Australia.
The dates for MountainGrass 2017 have been announced – 17 to 19 November. I’ve marked them in my calendar already.
*The general store and post office will be re-opening soon, thanks to some enterprising locals